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Medical Spanish for Nurses

The population of Spanish-speaking patients in America is steadily increasing. How important is it that nurses be able to speak Spanish on the job?

"The demographics of America are changing and as caregivers, we can help by being sensitive," says Dr. Mary Lou Bond, co-director of the Center for Hispanic Studies in Nursing and Health at the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA). "While it’s not necessary everywhere to learn Spanish, it’s useful in many places to at least speak a few words. Simply saying ‘Buenos dias’ or ‘Gracias’ may help a frightened patient feel more comfortable and understood in an unfamiliar environment."

Many nursing programs and language schools offer specialized "medical Spanish" courses, teaching conversational language and intercultural skills targeted specifically for the caregiving environment. Nursing staff who are interested in pursuing continuing education in this area have a number of learning options available to them.

Dr. Bond says UTA’s program started as a result of the rising discrepancy between the number of Spanish-speaking nurses and the number of first-generation Spanish-speaking patients in the region. The program, which offers language and cross-cultural training, is not only for UTA students; it has grown to serve interested professionals from around the country.

UTA is not alone. Duke University School of Nursing provides a Medical Spanish and Cultural Competency for Health Professionals program, which offers onsite culture and language classes. Participants earn a certificate or continuing-education and graduate credits. A growing number of nursing programs now offer medical-Spanish courses as electives and continuing education courses.

Becoming bilingual may be beyond the reach of many healthcare providers, but learning even a little Spanish is a smart career move.

Hispanics are the fastest-growing ethnic group in America today, yet also one of the most under-served by the healthcare industry. The following statistics highlight the pressing need for Spanish-speaking healthcare workers:

  1. Spanish is the language of more than half of all non-English speakers in America, making it the second most common language in the nation. (U.S. Census Bureau)
  2. There are currently more than 32 million Hispanics in the United States, which means that about one of every eight Americans is of Hispanic descent. That number is projected to steadily increase to 98 million—one in four Americans—within the next 50 years. (U.S. Census Bureau)
  3. Seventy percent of Hispanic adults and 85 percent of Hispanic children report seeing a doctor regularly. This percentage is significantly lower than their white and African-American counterparts. (National Center for Health Statistics)
  4. In 2000, only 3.9 percent of students enrolled in college nursing programs were of Hispanic descent. (National Center for Health Statistics)
  5. Hispanic children were less likely than white or black children to have their parents report that their providers always explained things in a way they could understand. (The Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS) Children's Health Care Quality, Fall 2000)

Another option for healthcare providers with extra time, funds, and a taste for travel is a language and cultural immersion program in Mexico or South America. Medical staff who enroll in these programs spend a week or two speaking only Spanish in a small group setting, interacting with locals and often staying with native-speaking families. Colleges that offer medical-Spanish specialty courses, like the University of Texas at Arlington, and a growing number of specialty immersion schools, such as Baja California Language College or SEMANA en español™, offer flexible weekend, week, or month-long programs focused on medical Spanish. Costs vary based on the program, travel rates, and the type of housing. Although the price may seem on the high side—up to $2900 for the Semana en español™ 17-day immersion program—participating nurses can receive continuing-education or college credit.

If you don’t have the flexibility of attending a long-term program, there are alternative learning options. For instance, the University of California San Francisco and Long Beach City College have developed a program called CHISPA, or "Caring for the Hispanic Patient Interactively," which offers interactive CD-ROMs, Web resources, and printed instruction manuals. This interactive program features language skill activities and simulations of patient-care scenarios. It’s intended for use in small group sessions sponsored by healthcare employers. For more information, visit CHISPA or contact Amit Schitai, the CHISPA project director, at (562) 938-4626 or

For at-home study, medical-Spanish distance-learning aids include the Multilingual Center’s Spanish for Healthcare Professionals, which offers inexpensive e-learning options, or the Medical Spanish for Nursing series from Scripps Educational Services, which comes complete with textbooks and audiotapes. There also are commercial CD-ROM products, including the Spanish Now! For Medical Professionals CD-ROM from Internet Language Company. (This CD-ROM also can be found at

For basic skills, Berlitz language schools offer flexible scheduling and diverse learning environments. Although they don’t specialize in medical Spanish, the company prides itself on designing specialized courses upon customer request.

Many online universities also offer general Spanish language courses. CoursePal Online Learning Guide identifies online language classes through reputable universities. In addition, community colleges are great resources for inexpensive language training, as are at-home tutoring sessions with local native-Spanish speakers. Check online bulletin boards or classifieds (such as craigslist), contact your local high school or university, or ask Spanish-speaking friends for tutor referrals.

Speaking Spanish may never become a job requirement, but nurses who choose to learn the language and culture of their Hispanic patients will have an edge. Some facilities offer pay differentials for bilingual nurses, but more importantly, you’ll be able to communicate more effectively with your patients. What's more, you'll give your Spanish-speaking patients truly equal access to quality healthcare.





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